Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Back from oblivion: tracking the poetry of Gordon Wharton

Gordon Wharton died on 2 December 2011

… an oblivion of sorts, liable to random
exhumation out of blind ignorance.

“Towards Oblivion”

Not to worry. I am safely back
from the reefs and rockpools of the North
with scarcely a word out of place.


 A while ago, browsing a 1953 new poetry anthology compiled by John Heath-Stubbs (Images of Tomorrow, SCM Press), I turned a page and was stopped dead in my mental tracks by this:


On a summer night, heavy and warm,
a noble moth flew into my room,
stained the ceiling with his shadow,
hovered, and swooped at the flickering candle.

A madman with a hole in his jacket
threaded a needle and stabbed his thumb,
poisoned his arm, his body, and he died,
turned up his toes and he died.

In the lunatic’s pocket there was a plan,
thumbprint, inkstain, deadly plan,
to split the world into ten thousand pieces,
but the hand that made it swelled and died.

With his mouth chock full with madman’s jacket
into my room flew a noble moth.
The crescent moon was like a pot handle
that darkened when it touched my candle.

Hovered and swooped, the moth swooped,
red wing, yellow eye, down from the ceiling
and shrivelled and scorched in my candle’s flame;
a hero dazzled by a shiftless light

blinded and shorn. On a summer night,
charred and black, a moth died,
his two eyes like holes burned in a blanket.
Turned up his toes and he died.

Though he and Heath-Stubbs had first met in the early ‘fifties, “The Moth” was Gordon Wharton’s one contribution to the anthology. It did not feel quite like anything else I could recall. It has the sing-song, incantatory (almost ballady) feel of Auden’s “light verse” phase, but highly coloured by a jagged and offbeat tone. I enjoyed the quirky punch of “with his mouth chock full of madman’s jacket”, or “his two eyes like holes burned in a blanket”. No musing on the pitiful death of a noble insect – the madman dimension sees to that. Nor is it some self-contained surrealist narrative, for the madman, undone by the sacrificial moth, plans to blow up the world. Whatever the particularities of its origin, this speaks outside itself to a zeitgeist in the shadow of 1939-45, and Heath-Stubbs, in his introduction, picks it out as an expression of the prevailing post-war angst, a poem that “could only … have been produced by the generation that grew up after the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.”

But for those of us who didn’t know, who was, or rather is, Gordon Wharton? His brief Wikipedia entry (self-penned?) shows he was born in 1929. He had three small collections published in 1954, 1955 and 1957. Since then, no books, except a long promised fourth collection, Towards Oblivion, which at last appeared in October 2010, in his ninth decade, over fifty years since his previous collection, and some ten years after the close of a thirty year hiatus in his submissions to magazines. This late stepping forth from oblivion is pretty impressive. So is his poetry, and the new book is no kind of disappointment.

A patchy biography can be threaded from traces and snippets [1]: Gordon Wharton was born at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, the son of a policeman and a milkmaid. He left his state school at 14 and worked in a local electroplating shop making instruments for wartime aircraft. Post-war National Service took him to Germany and back to the West Riding of Yorkshire, where he was demobbed in 1949, choosing to settle in Doncaster and join that town’s bohemian set. His first poems were published around 1950, when he became co-editor with Patrick Galvin of the literary magazine Chanticleer. He was later involved with Stand and Listen, and reviewed regularly for the TLS. His poems also appeared in The Spectator, Poetry Ireland, Irish Writing and Truth, and were broadcast on the BBC and Italian Radio. His friendships and contacts in literary circles were wide.

Meanwhile he earned a living from carpentry, travelling fairground work, newspaper selling, antique-dealing and travel journalism, eventually founding and editing the travel industry weekly Travelnews in 1969. Submissions of poems to magazines tailed off a year or two later, but in 2001, after an extended period of invisibility, he was published again in Ambit, and then in London Magazine and The Rialto. He now lives in Wallington, Surrey, and appears to have contributed two enthusiastic reviews on Amazon UK of recent albums by the Brixton indie/country band Alabama 3 [2].

Gordon Wharton’s first collection was published in the Spring of 1954 as the whole of number eight of The Poet, the twice yearly small magazine edited and published in Glasgow by W Price (Bill) Turner [3]. The Poet was letterpress printed on Price’s kitchen table and ran for fifteen issues from 1952 to 1957. It had a transatlantic presence, being priced both in sterling and in US cents, and running ads for American quarterlies. The Gordon Wharton number contains thirteen poems, only two of which would reappear, in revised forms, in later collections. Most have the ballad-like feel of “The Moth”, the two most folkloric being actually titled as ballads and dedicated to Wharton’s young daughter Esme Sheelagh:

Red-eyed Kelly with the horny fingers
spat on his hammer and threw it away:
I’m off, he said, to pull down the winds,
and I shan’t be back till yesterday.

He fixed the world in his strawberry eye
and pondered a way of doing the deed,
then he tied the horizon in a reef knot,
and crammed all the oaktrees into one seed.

These are simpler and more successful than W S Graham’s parallel but rather convoluted  attempts in 1954 to revive the ballad. (Graham later admitted that these were written, in some respects, “in the wrong way”.) Wharton’s are maybe closer to the ballad forms used at the time by the Cornish poet Charles Causley, though Wharton’s tone is generally more spiky, with a feel for the mocking and darkly ironic, in which the lyrical is nicely subverted by oblique and unexpected associations, as in “Wolf at the Door” –

There is a wolf with a bark like knives,
one eye gone and the other dim,
and seven dry Sundays of my nervous week
have not seen the end of him.

– or in “Invocation”:

O come my greenhaired Callybang
from counting beanrows in the dark,
and join the twisted and the mad
worshippers of the absent shark.

Wharton showed a sharp ear for the surreal vernacular, and pulled much of this from his Irish heritage (his grandmother was Irish), as in “For the Poets”:

This morning a cockerel flung dawn from his throat
like grief, to be gay, and who has caught the note,
the black crotchet, on the wind’s telegraphy?

Please you, not I, for the black dog walked over me
and laid nine sticks and nine great stones
crosswise on my bare backbones.

Please the pigs, not you, for birds are barking dogs,
like poets, never bite until they feel the knock
and the knock is a shillelagh blow in the wind.

At the time, Wharton had established particularly strong links with the Irish poetry scene, and his sense of this identity was so marked that he was later described inaccurately by an editor as “of Irish parents”. Even at the time, he admitted wryly that his Irishness was at a small distance:

But I am an Irishman once removed
whose home is Camden Town,
whose brogue is affectation,
and whose blarney is reach-me-down.

Today, he denounces these elements as “unforgiveable Irishisms … [that] I’m not very proud of in retrospect.” [4] He is too harsh on himself. The poems stand in the context of a broader period in which the establishment of national and regional voices in English language poetry was a valid and necessary project. (His orientation towards an origin also relates Wharton to the English neo-romantics of the previous decade, with their attempt at re-origination, at a revival of a lost national vision, informed by the voice of folklore. In other respects he kept himself at a distance from Apocalypticism, as we shall see.) The shillelaghs and Killala’s in The Poet may seem a touch too emerald at this distance, and the one attempt at a “serious” Irish piece, “The Famine”, is in some ways less successful, but overall the quirky turns of phrase and the syntactical Irishnesses give these verses an admirable blend of edginess and musicality. Myself, I rather like them.

Turner, as editor, added his own terse but noticeably warm endorsement: “Gordon Wharton is the only poet of my own generation whose work I admire without reservations. Imaginative irony is his strength; his weaknesses are of no consequence, being purely temporary.”

An advertisement appeared in The Poet inviting subscriptions to a further collection to be titled Sixteen Poems, and to be published by Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press at Drumcondra in Dublin, which had been founded in 1951 specifically to provide an outlet for Irish poetry. In the event, Sixteen Poems never materialised.

However, a new collection, This and That, did appear in late 1955. A slim pamphlet of fifteen poems (among them “The Moth” and one piece revised from The Poet), it was printed and published by the Fantasy Press at Eynsham, Oxford, set up by the poet Anthony Thwaite and Oscar Mellor, the Surrealist painter; Thwaite and Mellor both edited, but Mellor was typographer and printer. After wartime service in the RAF (and like Gordon Wharton, work in an electroplating firm) he had been part of the post-war Birmingham Surrealist group focused around the painter Conroy Maddox, but then moved to Oxford to set up the press to subsidise his painting career. The Fantasy Press was a jobbing commercial press, but Thwaite and Mellor also produced a considerable number of small publications by poets, many of whom went on to become important names [5].

Wharton’s early poems, like those of other contributors to Listen, founded in 1954, have with more or less accuracy been labelled “Empsonian”. The pieces in This and That are quite tightly written, and avoid the narration of personal experiences, with a tendency to the sardonic. They are certainly now distanced from the (supposedly prevailing) neo-romanticism of the war years and after, and the closing poem, “Apocalypse”, takes a cheerful swipe at the New Apocalyptics, though Wharton’s friend G S Fraser had been at the heart of that movement:

The sky is copper and the clouds are lead,
The walls are white, the shadows in disgrace,
The sun is blood-shot from a pall of smoke:
I know the time but cannot find the place.

Two rabbits hang head downward from a hook.
A glance leads backwards, I cannot retrace
My path to where the crater gapes and cools:
The world blows up in the romantic face.

The satire climbs until it tips over the edge – “… the umbrella man / Sits gaping on a dream of timeless space”. The Apocalyptics considered themselves the heirs of surrealism, and at surface level this simply takes the mick out of juvenile surrealist imagery (one hopes Oscar Mellor wasn’t too offended), but we are also made aware, as in “The Moth”, of the threatened nuclear apocalypse, to which the “romantic face” offers a laughably inadequate response.

The title poem “This and That” is rather more Auden than Empson. The leaping condensed-biographical narrative, the general clipped tone and the use of the anonymous third person are shades of Auden’s sequence “In Time of War”, but here Auden’s “he” or “they” have become two contrasted but intertwined characters:

This one preferred the handshake to be tight;
The frank dismissal and the blunt remark.
Those whom he hated he did not invite …

That one preferred the gentle platitude,
The smile of parting could not make him cry,
Slept with the decorous woman, not the nude …

This one and that one now meet and neither runs,
Though this one trembles, squints his bandaged eyes,
He is resigned, and that one holds the gun.

There is maybe something here also of Drummond Allison’s use of multiple third persons, as in his

One finds in leaves his solace
Circling a shabby palace.
Another binds his brow
Irrevocably, ousted …

A third makes life his refuge
Driven through deadlocks deaf.

(Allison, another disciple of Auden, was at Oxford with Heath-Stubbs, and his only collection, The Yellow Night, was published posthumously in 1944.) This and That contains some confident pieces, alongside others that are still a little unsure of themselves. The next collection developed these strengths, and appeared less than two years later.

Errors of Observation was printed in 1957 in an edition of 150 by the School of Art of the University of Reading, a press that produced a number of small poetry books on behalf of John Wain, Professor of English there at the time. (Others in the series included Kingsley Amis, Philip Oakes, Mairi MacInnes and Wain himself.) It contains eighteen poems, of which three had already been printed in This and That, and one revised from The Poet. Wharton cites Auden as an “inevitable” prime influence on his work during this period, and here it shows. The Audenesque tone is that of the ‘thirties Auden, though none the worse for that, and nicely done. Key Auden themes, such as “the problem of borders” (Edward Mendelson’s phrase) even appear in a couple of poems –

And, without knowing, we begin to trespass
For lack of fences or boundaries gone hang.

Then there are dogs that will not let us pass
Whistling or muffling an embarrassed cough.

Always there are these ill-guarded frontiers
No sudden change of scenery indicates.

We shall go back, limits or not, and press
By the thick-armed guardians to go
Singing in orchards; but we must confess
It is best to know when you are crossing borders.

(“The Need for Fences”)

– and Auden’s “hawk’s perspective”, the all-seeing overhead view of the kestrel or airman, is the whole basis of the fine poem “End of the Season”, in which we hover over a landscape inhabited by unloved and unloving “tenants”:

See this evening the marvellous hawk amazes
The screaming sparrow, the petulant, grounded boy:
From where he hangs still in the measured sky
Regards the summer’s tenants in their houses
Hot and disorderly, with his frozen eye.

Leaseholders of a febrile constitution
Intemperately living where their power
Focussed and made them brilliant, now turn sour;
Unluckier, deplete with its constriction,
Their pulses falter measuring the hour.

But admire these millionaires in their declension
For the huge, violent parties that they threw
For insolent, lean, young men who only grew
Afraid in the silent interval’s expansion
And heeled away to strike out at their rue.

This moves towards a particularly fine closing line:

On whom order encroaches gradually,
And over the lawns the muscular mowers moving.

The tenants here embody a declining social order, giving the flavour of some of Auden’s prophetic and denunciatory political verses. But they are also cousins to “the quiet tenants sullenly at their gates”, the “thick-armed guardians” of “The Need for Fences”, who, as sentries at unmarked borders, seem related to Auden’s gamekeepers, guardians, or “Lords of Limit”.

Wharton’s settings, as in earlier Auden, are less those of actual experience than imagined or psychological landscapes, constructed from snapshots of bits and pieces, like the scenery of a recurrent dream, with the seaside or the suburb used in place of Auden’s  run-down villages and abandoned lead mines.

In the opening and title poem of the collection, the border becomes a river, at which a spy (another early Auden persona), observing through his binoculars signs of an unknown civilisation on the far bank, is questioned by unidentified (perhaps official?) visitors:

The idea is exciting, surely,
But are your intentions really very pure?
We’ve watched you with your little opera glasses
Lying for hours in the stalky grass,
And, to be honest, we are not quite sure.
You say you watch the life beyond the river;
Can you tell us precisely how it differs
From ours?

This interrogative, colloquial register and the heavy rhyme scheme (“… we groom / A horrid nightmare of blackness and doom”) eventually become a tad theatrical. But the conceit and the intention are admirable.

Elsewhere, we are back in Empsonian mode, and in “Paradise Lost” (is the title an Empson reference, though Empson did not publish Milton’s God until 1965?) with a vengeance and a villanelle:

The bean-feast’s over, let’s call it a day.
No more great jokes, Bright-eyes is looking grim;
The knives and forks are washed and put away.

No use complaining that we cannot stay,
We’ll have to hitch our belts up and stay slim.
The bean-feast’s over, let’s call it a day.

Empson’s villanelles were sometimes used more lyrically than this (“It is the pain, it is the pain, endures”) but this is close to the odd combination of the everyday and the enigmatic that colours his “Reflection from Anita Loos” and others. And “let’s call it a day” is not far from the “be up and go” of Empson’s “Aubade”.

There are very few weaknesses in Errors of Observation. Robert Conquest called it “somehow monumental”, and Edwin Muir noted that “something noteworthy is happening here” (but he was clearly not sure quite what). Al Alvarez (despite his aversion to the Audenish tone in “End of the Season”) picked out, in a review for Listen, the authoritative and Audenesque “Vultures” as “truly impressive … summing up and bidding an ironic farewell to a whole era”: [6]

The resonant gyros wheeling their bald grace
Hover to watch you. Now more than ever they
Are jealous lovers; their careful, distant embrace
Solicits some response. What can you say?

Errors of Observation deserves to be much better known.

In 2001 Ambit 163 printed a new Wharton poem, “Sundown”, and noted that “after a silence of nearly 30 years, he feels himself ‘shuffling hesitantly’ towards a Selected – probably to be called Touch Wood.” In the event, this was to be a new collection, not a selected or collected, with only one poem, heavily revised, included from the previous three. The bulk of this material was gathered together online at [7], the main body retitled as “Towards Oblivion”, with two supplementary sections, “An Imaginary Memoir” and “Squiblings”. With a few additions and revisions of titles, this finally appeared under the AuthorHouse imprint in late 2010 as Towards Oblivion, containing over fifty poems [8].

The title is, I guess, an ironic reference to Ian Hamilton’s Against Oblivion, and the Wikipedia entry notes that in more recent work “the more economical style of Ian Hamilton has been an influence.” The newer poems show something akin to Hamilton’s stripped down, intensified “dramatic lyrics”, but unlike Hamilton they practise a further economy of emotion, and avoid his tendency to lurch over into the melodramatic.

Ambit has honoured Towards Oblivion with a review in issue 204 by Jim Burns. Burns takes a quick look at two of the more immediate and accessible pieces, praising their “sympathetic view of life”, “gentle humour”, “low key way”, “decent reticence”, “relaxed manner”, and “clear and direct” language, in which “each line moves easily into the next”. All niceness and plain speaking, then. But this is, after all, Jim Burns the well known and veteran exponent of plain speaking in poetry (sometimes very plain indeed). Towards Oblivion is used here as a stick with which to beat one Mario Petrucci, the next in line for review, who is denounced as a hopelessly fractured modernist and “difficult to read” (though he doesn’t look especially difficult to me). This review of Towards Oblivion is warm and supportive. It is also unworthy, as it seems to be written to Burn’s agenda, not Wharton’s, which can’t do justice to Wharton’s precision of language, nor to the more opaque side of his writing. Take, for instance, “Been There”:

While they burst in, beating snow from their furs,
their trick moustaches pearling, the girlish driver
hid the Lagonda before he broke the ice

to drink from the horse-trough. Since when no creature,
man nor beast, has dared attempt that seething brew,
leach as it may into the water table.

Burying his cap, I turned back to the inn —
all of a mucksweat now — to cast my vote:
rather than spill their blood we’d share their genes.


One signpost signals another, the merest
fingerboard; and nothing passes here for days
except the days. Ignore the guidebook, it’s

not true our streams run backwards, nor yet uphill.
Our local knack is cubing a foul bouillon
from knackered livestock. That and a blue-veined cheese
which, some nights, will take the roof of your mouth off.

This is clearly Wharton the travel journalist writing, but in what nightmare corner of a foreign field do we find ourselves, stranded and gone native? Burns sees Wharton’s language as “clear and direct”; literally and syntactically it is, but that’s the limit of clarity and directness here. Why does the driver hide the Lagonda? Why has the visitor killed the driver? Hamiltonian terseness is filed down to an extreme, and all context is stripped away, so that the disjointed images succeed each other in the manner of a fevered dream, or some incomprehensible film trailer. Information is so condensed – almost homeopathically condensed, until the smallest possible amount will do the trick – that it takes time and repeated reading for it to trickle through, until the real nature of the catastrophe becomes apparent.

Burns gives thanks that he can detect in Wharton no “emotional stewing”, no “tendency to see the world as a bleak and dismal place”. I go along with the first bit; nothing is stewed here, except the bouillon. But wherever this place is, it’s hardly a million miles from bleak and dismal, though dismal is made interesting by bizarre and inexplicable. (In a poem such as “A Nightmare Harvest Yet To Come”, bleakness is all – and unremitting violence with it. Did Burns skip that one?)

The language is tightly and immaculately crafted. Despite appearances – “take the roof of your mouth off”, or the Doncastrian “all of a mucksweat” – this is not homespun chuntering, and the relaxed phrasing only belies, then heightens, the nastiness in the woodshed and the ghastly ennui. As in early Wharton, the colloquial is entirely at the service of the enigmatic and the off kilter.

The psychological landscapes of these poems are rarely welcoming, more often menacing, though the menace may be quietly indulged, as in “Crepuscular”:

Long shadows loping to the reed-bed where
water-rail grunt and squeal like stuck piglets.

Or among hay-stooks cracks the whiplash cry
of the spotted crake. We’re in that zone again …

… We are between drowsiness
and sleepwalking, on the dim borders between

ourselves and whatever place we may inhabit.

This place may be a darkness populated by cats or foxes, or on the margins of town, where the river is “diesel-dyed”, or where

The haunted pool harbours
three cautionary cones –
ditched, Dayglo-red and white –
a drowned coven’s headgear.

Or at a beach where the foreshore resembles

the undecided underside of something
dank that continual rejection had humbled.

Or a railway line by

… Hushed sidings much obsessed
by stubborn buddleia and polystyrene

(Wharton is admirably attentive to litter and detritus.) Alternatively, we are cast as tourists in some unannounced European town where things are less than pleasant, or not even entirely real:

Have debouched now into the baroque
Plaza Mayor with its camp campanile,
its illusions of space and splendour.
All of it a trick of prestidigitation.

Wharton is, I’m glad to say, unafraid of puns – “undecided underside”, “camp campanile” – a technique that seems to be frowned on lately. But unlike punsters such as, say, George Barker, he never allows the pun, bloated by its own cleverness, to shove its way to a prominence it does not deserve. Wordplay is always well judged, opening up layers and coincidences of meaning.

At first impression, a few of the pieces in Towards Oblivion appear slight, ephemeral even. But on re-reading, they really begin to deliver, and you know that you will return to them repeatedly. And that (let’s be honest) is unusual. But not everything is oblique. I’m not especially fond of the intimate in poetry, but I warm very much to the transparency and “decent reticence” (Burns) of “Ciphers”:

So, after all that time, I found her rings
(or echoes of them, such as they were)
encoded on a sliver of Palmolive
left high and dry in a scallop-shell
on the kitchen sill, back of the curtains.

Faint indentations: one flawed half-smile
and a pair of zeros silted up
with pollen from dead moths. Engagement,
wedding and (wry afterthought?)
eternity. Sweet nothings speaking
only for themselves.

This is both deeply touching and beautifully clever, with touch and cleverness in perfect balance, neither damaging the other. What more could you want? It’s a change to read a contemporary personal piece that is not, like so much, larded up to the hilt with cloying “sensitivity”. And where each word is set with precision, a skill that some seem to avoid on principle in case it should undermine their “authenticity”.

Only two small regrets. The early poem “The Moth”, with which we started this appreciation, reappears as “Through my Half-open Window”, but split off from its madman sub-plot. Compare:

On a summer night, heavy and warm,
a noble moth flew into my room.
The sickle moon was like a pot-handle
that darkened when it touched my candle.

Hovered and swooped the moth swooped –
red wing, yellow eye – down from the ceiling,
a hero dazzled by my shiftless light,
blinded and shorn. Blinded and torn.

Shrivelled and scorched in the candle’s flame,
the moth died. His two eyes like holes
burnt in a blanket – turned up his toes and he died.

Admittedly, “sickle” is better than “crescent”, but I can’t help regretting the bisection of the original. Is the “madman” context now too historical? But the world is still full of madmen, and in this reduced form the poem maybe risks losing some wider resonance, as well as a little of its musicality.

Secondly, the publisher, AuthorHouse. It’s a shame that such a fine poet, with such an admirable collection, should be obliged to turn to what is, essentially, a vanity publisher, and a slightly controversial one at that, as a quick google will reveal. But at least it means that Towards Oblivion is readily available, for a modest sum, on eBay, Amazon and elsewhere. A good job too, as it knocks into a cocked hat most of what else is being published these days. Altogether, it’s a particularly good job that today, fifty four years after Errors of Observation, Gordon Wharton has at last definitively outwitted oblivion by leaving us these fifty four poems under a single cover.

My thanks go to Gordon Wharton for permission to quote his poems, and for his generous tolerance of this “random exhumation out of blind ignorance”.

[1] A quite full autobiographical sketch used to be online at, but has recently been taken down.

[2] From Wikipedia, Times Online (, London Review of Books (, PN Review (, and autobiographical notes in This and That and Towards Oblivion.

[3] Turner later held the Gregory Fellowship in Poetry at Leeds University, and also wrote and reviewed crime fiction. There is a biographical note at

[4] Letter to the writer, 23 June 2011.

[5] Don Chapman, “Oscar Mellor, Printer and Artist”, The Eynsham Record 19, 2002; Peter Way, “The Fantasy Press”, ibid 18, 2001, both at; Phoebe Tulip, “Oscar Mellor – A Private View” in Surrealism in Birmingham 1935-1954, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, 2001.

[6] Original references not known to me; cited on the back cover of Towards Oblivion.

[7] A duplicate site exists at

[8] One poem on the website, “For Bill and Hetta Empson”, is not included. A pity, as this gently erotic swimming pool reverie is a pleasing nod to Empson’s “High Dive”.

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